Policy Documents

An Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail

American Public Transportation Association –
January 1, 2012

This report is the summary of extensive research that examined the criticism that has been leveled over the past three years at the national efforts to improve intercity passenger rail and introduce true high-speed passenger rail in the United States.

In the course of this research it has been heartening to discover that there are really not that many critics, and those critics have not actually offered many unique arguments against the passenger rail initiative. What is disheartening, however, is that this small group of critics have organized themselves into a well- oiled campaign that includes strategies to repeat the criticisms frequently, offer them as fresh criticisms each time they are expressed, and make broad, sweeping claims that sound factual, but upon close examination are usually without fact.

Most of these criticisms can be found in one form or another in a paper published by the Reason Foundation and authored by Wendell Cox and Joseph Vranich titled, “The California High-Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report.” The “Due Diligence Report” was prepared especially to defeat the 2008 California Proposition 1A—a bond referendum to finance the California high-speed rail project.

The key message of “A Due Diligence Report” was that the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans had little or no potential to be implemented in their proposed form and that the project was highly risky for state taxpayers and private investors. Cox and Vranich based these conclusions on a misreading of a rather exhaustive study done by Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rottengatter, “Mega-Projects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition,” published by Cambridge University Press in 2003.

The intent of “Mega-Projects” was to inform decision-makers of the challenges that face project managers and decision-makers as they propose, pursue and execute large infrastructure projects. Cox and Vranich construed “Mega-Projects” as a condemnation of large infrastructure projects, pointing to the California project as the very type of project “to be condemned.”

Fortunately, California voters saw right through this ploy and approved Proposition 1A, and with the exception of a few populist politicians who seem to campaign against virtually all types of government spending, the criticisms of Cox, Vranich and their colleagues have had little impact except to consume hundreds of inches of newspaper columns across the country, and provide fodder for conservative radio talk show hosts looking to incite their listeners.

Readers may recall that about 10 years ago the American Public Transportation Association launched an initiative to dispel the “myths about public transportation.”

That effort resulted in a series of monographs by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind. The litany of criticisms indentified by Weyrich and Lind are not dissimilar from those being leveled at intercity and high-speed rail today.